Where do we draw the line between acceptable variance and dangerous disobedience? Where do we draw the line between an annoyance and real trouble?
I loved this post from Casey Matthews-Lamonaco, Things we expect of our dogs but cannot do ourselves. Go read it; I’ll wait.
(Didja catch the part about not liking every other dog or person? I get questions from clients all the time, whose dogs aren’t keen on the dog park or don’t want to play with the dogs they meet. I explain I don’t like everyone I meet, either, and I certainly don’t need to hug each person I pass on the sidewalk or even engage them in conversation. Kinda puts things in perspective….)
But here’s the thing: not long after this was published, I saw a response ask, “Yeah, but how do we know when to let something slide? Where do we draw the line?”
This should be a familiar question to human parents, of course! I am not a parent, biologically speaking, but here’s my best stab at an answer for all species.
For me, I often look at the spirit of the exercise. and whether a variation has violated that or is just a variation. For example, my dogs are usually asked to lie down while I prepare their suppers. One night, Shakespeare broke his down and snatched a nearby chew which had been abandoned by its previous owner for the promise of supper, and then he returned to his place with the chew tucked neatly under one paw for safekeeping. The entire movement covered only a few feet and took less than a second, but it was clearly a break from the down.
Does this matter to me? Not really. The downs-for-dinner less to do with practicing obedience or supposedly maintaining a dominance hierarchy and more to do with keeping them stable; dinner is a Big Deal in my house, and without an alternate task, the kitchen full of orbiting Dobermans and Rottweiler would be dangerously close to becoming a Hadron Collider. As I move about the kitchen, adding raw food, any supplements or medication, salmon oil, perhaps some scraps, to their buckets, a dog may scoot out of my path or shift to a less-trafficked area to lie down. Shakespeare’s quick dart to take advantage of an unguarded valuable was acceptable to me because he returned promptly to his down, he clearly understood the concept I wanted, and besides, it’s kinda fun for me to see his brain work like that.
Now, the rules shift dramatically when I set the buckets on the floor. Now we’re not just keeping the dogs out of the way; now we’re actively practicing control. No matter where I place that bucket, I expect my dogs to hold their position. A quick shift is no longer within the standards of tolerance — you move at all, and we have to reset! And the dogs understand this, and mistakes are rare.
Is this confusing to my dogs? I don’t think so. In the beginning, I cued “down” as I set down the buckets, formalizing the exercise; sometimes I still cue it, but now the buckets are also a cue, of course. The “settle down as I fix your food” is much less formal, and I’ve always just casually reinforced Laev’s downs while I’m cooking, anyway, so there’s a different history there. At least, no one ever seems confused about it!
I often recommend that clients have two types of recalls, the “hey, I’m going this way, drift along with me” cue and the “drop everything and get here now!” cue. We don’t always need a lightning response, so why require it — and why give your dog a chance to be wrong? If you just need your dog to recognize that he needs to catch up, just tell him that. Be specific.
Am I perfect? No. Is my dog perfect? No. There’s an embarrassingly small chance of any of us being mistaken for perfect. But we generally get the spirit of the endeavor, and that’s my first behavioral guideline.